The opportunity for history undergraduates to present their research in a professional setting is unique. However, three Millikin history students were granted that rare opportunity during the 15th Annual Conference on Illinois History held Sept. 26-27 in Springfield, Ill.
Students Kayla Samuelson, a senior history major from Onarga, Ill., John Billimack, a senior history major from Champaign, Ill., and Maxwell Couch, a senior history major from Bolingbrook, Ill. offered their original research to audiences of scholars and non-professional historians for feedback during the conference.
"It is unique for a history department to take undergraduates to a conference and have them present their work," said Dr. Dan Monroe, Millikin associate professor of history. "If you look at these conferences, typically the people that are presenting are graduate students or professors so this is an exceptional example of performance learning."
The Conference on Illinois History is the state's largest meeting devoted to the history of the Prairie State. This year's conference included 23 paper sessions that featured topics such as politics, Abraham Lincoln, Latino history, and the Civil War; seven workshops; and two roundtable discussions.
"The students wrote history papers in our classes using original sources such as newspapers, letters, diaries and standard works of history such as biographies," said Monroe. "The papers were at such a level that we took them to this regional conference and had them presented. They worked in the class and took that work out into the wider world to present."
Kayla Samuelson presented her paper titled "The Experiences of One 1960s-Era Decatur Minister." The paper is based on the controversy surrounding Westminster Church's Reverend Emil Hattoon and his efforts to register African-Americans to vote in Hattiesburg, Miss. in 1964. Kayla's presentation was part of the "Civil Rights Stories" concurrent session during the conference.
"The questions I received during the conference were very interesting because the audience wanted me to explain about the trends and how they fit with the times," said Samuelson. "My experience presenting at this conference says a lot about how Millikin professors are willing to work with students who are interested in presenting. Going to a conference that brings out questions about one's research helps any undergraduate prepare for graduate school or grow in terms of becoming a researcher."
Samuelson is currently working with Dr. Brian Mullgardt, Millikin assistant professor of history, to try to get her research published in the Illinois Herald-Journal by December 2013. She will be attending graduate school following graduation from Millikin.
Samuelson added, "I think any research experience given to an undergrad is a great opportunity. The fact that Millikin faculty took me under its wing when I had this interest my freshman year is outstanding."
John Billimack and Maxwell Couch presented their research as part of the "Illinois Civil War Generals" concurrent session. Billimack's paper was titled "Grierson's Raid," a project based on 1863 Union colonel Benjamin H. Grierson who was chosen for a mission to lead three regiments of horsemen and a battery of artillery through the state of Mississippi. Couch's paper was titled "General John A. Logan," a paper based on the Civil War General who became one of Illinois' most powerful Senators.
"I enjoyed performing the research – the thesis on my paper was how General Logan changed from a democrat to a republican during the Civil War," said Couch. "It was interesting to be a part of the conference because we were the only undergrads there. It was great because we received feedback on how we could improve our research."
John Billimack added, "It was a fantastic experience, and I was very privileged to have been given such an opportunity through Millikin's history department."
Couch will look to acquire an internship at a museum after graduating from Millikin and then attend graduate school. Billimack will also be attending graduate school following graduation from Millikin.
Monroe added, "The fact that they went out into the professional world and got validation from other professors and historians for their research is huge. It gives them a sense of confidence and it's important for them especially for getting into graduate school. This experience gives them an introduction to the profession – you do research, write papers, and then you present them to your colleagues in a conference forum and they respond to your findings. It's a process where everyone learns."